My name is Ben Gansky, and I have a bit of a confession to make.
While I've loved 'the classics' since I was about thirteen (me love Shakespeare long time) I think that we (by 'we' I mean theatre-makers of all kinds, but specifically young, hungry, innovative theatre-makers) shouldn't produce classic plays as often as we do. Too many productions of classical plays serve to further entrench what has become our tradition of 'classical theatre': the actors talk, the audience sits in the dark watching them talk; if the audience can follow the plot, they're elated that they "actually understood it".
That's not what we as theatre artists want. That's not what audiences want, either, though maybe they don't know that (yet). We want an audience to get lost in the story, to empathize with the characters, or to be disgusted by them, to share an experience with the actors and with each other. Yes. These are all good things. So how do we get there?
I think that one of the stumbling blocks on the road to building exciting shared experiences in the theatre is a strict adherence to form--to performing these plays as they were set down on paper, or papyrus, or lambskin, or whatever. The reality is that we don't know how Shakespeare's plays worked in performance in Elizabethan England, or how Sophocles would have directed his tragedies in Greek amphitheaters. Which is totally fine, actually, because you can bet that geniuses like Shakespeare and Sophocles engineered their theatre to speak to their contemporaries—Elizabethan and ancient Greek audiences, respectively. Their stories draw on universal human experiences, which is why we still perform their work. But their plays, the form of their plays, are not for all time.
Both Shakespeare and Sophocles furnished us with innovations of form--Sophocles was the first playwright to introduce a third character and Shakespeare’s countless innovations included invented words, the perfection of blank verse, and the juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy. How do we follow their lead—innovating new forms that speak to our audience, sharing these stories of humanity that teach us how to live? This to me is the challenge and excitement of producing ‘the classics’.
I keep using the examples of Sophocles and Shakespeare not just because they’re great examples of classical playwrights whose work represented highly innovative theatre in their day, but because Vintage Theater Collective is meeting these two artists head on in June. I happen to be performing in both of these pieces, OedipusRexPlay and Back Room Shakespeare: Measure for Measure.
I think of OedipusRexPlay as a post-modern telling of the Oedipus story. Why post-modern? It doesn’t really give a shit about genre or formal continuity. The characters occasionally refer to the presence of the audience. The action is broken up by songs from the band, Mr. Eyeballs & The Mother Lovers. It draws indiscriminately from various media (radio, rock concert, ‘play’, boxing match). It’s self-referential, aware of itself as a piece of theatre in front of a live audience. And it’s still the same story. In fact, I think that the way the story is told is more conducive to the kind of audience experience I talk about above than a production in which the script is performed as ‘faithfully’ as possible. There is surprise in OedipusRexPlay, and the surprise is in the form as much as the content of the story. To me, that feels very contemporary.
According to legend/lore/received wisdom, Shakespeare’s players were so busy with their insane repertory performances that they didn’t have time to meet to rehearse a new play before it opened—they would read through it once as a group, assign roles, and then each actor would take home a ‘cue script’ containing only their own lines and their three to four word cues. The term ‘role’ (roll = role) ostensibly originates from these scrolls of parchment with the lines for a particular part. The actors would learn their lines on their own, show up early for opening night to learn the fights and dances, and then let ‘er rip.
Crazy! Well. Vintage Theater Collective is all about dialoging with the past—and that means not just content from the past in the form of scripts and stories, but also forms and practices stolen from the past. Hence Back Room Shakespeare. Back in cold cold February, Vintage presented a rehearsal-less Much Ado About Nothingat the Black Rock Pub. It was such a smashing success (hey, maybe that Shakespeare guy knew the kind of rehearsal process that he was writing for…) that Vintage has decided to produce another Back Room Shakespeare: this time, the ever-baffling, alternately disturbing and hilarious Measure for Measure. Coming for one night only (mark your calendars: June 12th, again at the Black Rock), I can’t tell you too much about Measure for Measure. But that’s because I don’t know too much about how it will go. No one does! So come and find out, along with all the rest of us. It’ll be wild, that’s for sure.
It’s not enough to make good theatre. We have to make exciting theatre, contemporary theatre—especially when we’re producing from the canon of classics. With OedipusRexPlay and Back Room Shakespeare, Vintage Theater Collective continues to innovate the ways in which classical theatre is created.